The way we perceive strength training today has dramatically evolved over the past decade, especially around the subject of weight training for women.
Yes, men and women respond differently to strength training, but it doesn’t mean one sex benefits from it more than the other.(1) While lifting weights may carry the stereotype of being more beneficial for men, due to the link between strength training and boosting testosterone levels, it’s a habit that’s extremely beneficial for women of all ages.(2)
Throughout their lives, most women will experience menstruation, menopause, and potentially pregnancy. These big shifts will not only impact their sex hormones and reproductive system but practically their entire bodies.: mood, cognitive response, sleep, metabolism, you name it. By adding in another stressor, such as strength training, their bodies will experience more tissue damage and spikes in select hormones which will impact their systems in a variety of other ways.(3)
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Sometime after turning 45 years old, a woman’s ovaries will slowly begin to decline in estrogen and progesterone hormone production: a process most commonly known as menopause. When it comes to menopausal women, there’s a lot of misguided information around whether not they should incorporate a strength training regime at this stage in their lives. Luckily, strength coach Molly Galbraith, CSCS and Dr. Helen Kollias of Girls Gone Strong helped us clear the air with some of the most relevant facts and science behind strength training and menopause.
[Learn more: How Your Menstrual Cycle Can Affect Your Lifts]
Menopause and Your Hormones
Estrogen plays a key role in regulating the absorption and breakdown of collagen while also assisting one’s bladder function (holding and releasing urine specifically).(4)
“Changes in estrogen levels during menopause can have an effect on the pelvic floor,” explains Galbraith. “This may mean that women are more susceptible to urine leaking post menopause due to the reduction in estrogen.”
Therefore, adopting a strength training routine may aid in maintaining good pelvic floor health and decrease the risk of urinary incontinence. For example, performing exercises such as squats, glute bridges and kegels with intentional, controlled contractions can help reinforce stability and proper muscle engagement in the pelvic region.
Symptom wise, menopause is most commonly associated with hot flashes, night sweats, and chills, otherwise known as vasomotor symptoms.
“The vasomotor center is a part of the brainstem involved in regulating blood pressure via blood vessel dilation and contraction,” says Dr. Kollias. Changes in the hypothalamus (the area of your brain that regulates your body temperature) can initiate hot flashes and fluctuations in a menopausal woman’s internal temperature. Given the relationship between exercise and healthy estrogen production, a few studies have shown that adopting a regular training regime can reduce the severity of sleep quality, insomnia and depression.(5) As far as these particular symptoms go, the evidence is mixed as to whether or not exercise helps to reduce hot flashes.(6) However, it has been shown to improve psychological well-being and decrease amount of weight gained during this phase.”
[Learn more: Why Do Some Women Pee Mid-Workout?]
Bone Density & Muscle Mass
Regardless of age, strength training benefits the retention of muscle mass of any female. It’s really no secret that following a consistent exercise routine improves one’s cardiovascular, metabolic and psychological health.
One of menopause’s consequences is the acceleration of tissue aging throughout the body (muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons).(7) Given the majority of women will enter this phase around the ages of 50 to 55 years old, strength training won’t just decrease their risk of osteoporosis but if adopted early on in life, it can also aid them in achieving the highest possible peak bone mass when premenopausal.
So, one could suggest that if you’re under 45 years, it’s smart to incorporate a resistance training routine to benefit as much as possible from it before fully shifting into menopause. However, the good news is that there’s no such thing as being “too old” for strength training or starting “too late.”
Now, we already know that once a woman enters menopause, her ovaries start decreasing the production of estrogen and progesterone. Research shows estrogen acts as a regulator of muscle energy metabolism and muscle cell viability.(8) It does so by inserting itself into cells, like muscle membranes, in order to stabilize them and help protect them from tearing. Therefore, strength training to increase the size of muscle fibers can help to mitigate these effects by combating age-related sarcopenia (a reduction in muscle strength and size) and maintain the current health of their bones, muscles, and joints.(9)
Although a healthy lifestyle does not increase the amount of estrogen in circulation, it reduces the risk of deterioration and development of chronic health conditions.
We already know estrogen’s role goes beyond a woman’s reproductive system. On top of helping regulate the menstrual cycle, estrogen is crucial to preserving muscle mass and is instrumental in bone formation.(10) As estrogen production starts to decline, premenopausal and menopausal women’s bone rebuilding process will, in turn, start to slow down. So, in this case, strength training is a great way to help maintain a healthy skeletal and muscular system. That said, it’s important to really prioritize proper recovery.
“While most trainers focus on weight gain and weight distribution during this time, they really need to be focusing on recovery,” explains Galbraith. “During menopause or postmenopause, women have a decreased capacity for physiological stress.”
This is largely due to vasomotor symptoms. These symptoms (often called hot flashes), are described as a sudden increase in blood flow mostly to the face, neck, and chest, that cause the sensation of extreme heat and excessive sweating. When a woman experiences these symptoms at night, these “night sweats” can cause significant sleep disturbances. These can be caused by the decline of estrogen, which help you fall and stay asleep by controlling levels of cortisol, and a lack of melatonin, which regulates body temperature for sleep. All the more reason to ensure proper recovery.
Galbraith’s tip: “Being mindful of how your clients feel during and after exercise, ensuring they can take breaks and have plenty of water to drink if they are experiencing hot flashes, and monitoring their overall recovery is incredibly important.”
Potential methods of recovery include:
- Soft tissue work post-training, such as foam rolling
- Epsom salt baths (to help relieve any delayed onset muscle soreness)
- Giving your body 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep at night
- Getting adequate protein intake
- Start taking a magnesium supplement
- Ice baths or cold showers
Why should a menopausal woman opt for strength training rather than solely relying on aerobic work as a form of exercise?
“Just like anyone, a combination of strength training and cardiovascular training is best for retention of muscle mass, improved bone density and health, cardiovascular health, and overall health and well-being,” Kolias states.
Along with preserving muscle mass and increasing bone density, menopausal women that opted for strength training as their primary method of exercise noticed tremendous psychological changes in and outside of a gym setting. Many of Galbraith’s clients experienced these benefits as well. “We’ve noticed that women feel appreciably stronger, more capable, more confident in their bodies and their abilities, and more in control of their overall health after adopting strength training. Particularly in a time in their life when they may feel as though their health is a bit out of their control.”
Although the stigma of strength training being “bad” or “too intense for older women” still exists, experts like Galbraith and Kolias will continue to passionately educate the fitness community on the benefits of adopting this style of exercise routine—regardless of age and gender.
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11. Reproductive hormone influences on thermoregulation in women. Compr Physiol. 2014 Apr;4(2):793-804. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c130029.